Muck and Mystery
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February 03, 2005
Healthy Dog

Robert Conquest's The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History sounds interesting so I've ordered it. Like his earlier work The Great Terror, 1968 and subsequent works such as The Harvest of Sorrow it is being met with initial rejection by many in academia. If, like those earlier works, it proves in time to be equally sensible it will be a good read now.

Product Description:

From the author of The Harvest of Sorrow and one of the world's most respected humanists comes this long-awaited work of history and philosophy. The Dragons of Expectation—in the tradition of Isaiah Berlin's The Crooked Timber of Humanity and George Orwell's Essays—brilliantly traces how seductive ideas have come to corrupt modern minds, to often-disastrous effects. From the onset of the Enlightenment to the excesses of democracy, Stalinism, and liberalism, Robert Conquest masterfully examines how false nostrums have infected academia, politicians, and the public, showing how their reliance on "isms" and the destructive concepts of "People, Nation, and Masses" have resulted in a ruinous cycle of turbulence and war. Including analyses of Russia's October Revolution, World War II, and the Cold War that challenge common historical views, The Dragons of Expectation is one of the most important contributions to modern thought in recent years.
A passage quoted in a negative review has prompted some controversy.
And we are told that a number of members of the Middle Eastern terror groups had originally been in the local communist movements ... The members of [the Real IRA and the Shining Path], as with those in Italy or, for example, the Naxalities in India, were almost entirely recruited from student elements who had accepted the abstractions of fashionable academics. And the September 11 bombers were almost all comfortably off young men, some having been to Western universities and there adopted the extremely anti-Western mind-set.
This is another facet of the current critical examination of the state of western universities and academic behavior. I'll be interested to see what Conquest says and what more thoughtful and insightful reviewers have to say.

But, the hits just keep on coming as the ill-considered statements of academics made post-9/11 are raised to public awareness and examined. The Ward Churchill affair is relevant. As Timothy notes:

Churchill’s scholarly oeuvre is practically a guided tour of every trope of identity politics: polemical extensions of the concept of genocide into every possible institutional or social interaction between the colonized and colonizer, erasures of any historical or programmatic distinctions between colonizers in different eras or systems, reduction of all history and contemporary society into a sociologically and morally simple binary schema of colonizer and colonized (hence the remark that the people in the Twin Towers were “little Eichmanns” while Iraqis are literally infantilized into starving babies and nothing more), pervasive indictments of systems of representation, and aggressive assertions of exclusive cultural, moral, political and economic ownership of anything and everything connected with a particular identity group (Native Americans in this case).

Anything and everything can be fed, often with appalling casualness, into the polemic machine he builds: other scholars become, if not heroic comrades, mere “crypto-fascists” (there is no other possible position or posture). Mickey Spillane’s novels are part of a cohesive infrastructure for global hegemony. All power is endlessly and floridly conspiratorial. And so on.

The thing of it, there are very thoughtful people who take some or all of these positions. Churchill isn’t: he’s prolific but he’s also something of a hack. Herein lies the deeper problem that Hamilton College, Ward Churchill and many academics might be perfectly happy to escape notice, and that shouldn’t be reduced to one more example of right-wing polemicists beating on lefty academics...

But academic institutions also insist in many ways and at many moments that they are highly selective, that all their peculiar rituals—the peer review, the tenure dossier, the hiring committee, the faculty seminar—are designed to produce the best, most thoughtful community of minds possible. In response to criticism from conservatives who complain at the lack of conservatives in the academic humanities and social sciences, a few scholars even had the cheek publicly (and more privately) to suggest that conservatism is one of those things that academic quality control quite legitimately selects against, that if the academy is liberal, that’s because it’s selective. Anybody has the right to speak, but nobody has the obligation to provide all possible speakers a platform, an honorarium, an invitation.

In that context, it becomes awfully hard to defend the comfortably ensconced position of someone like Churchill within academic discourse, and equally hard to explain an invitation to him to speak anywhere. There’s nothing in his work to suggest a thoughtful regard for evidence, an appreciation of complexity, a taste for dialogue with unlike minds, a proportionality, a meaningful working out of his own contradictions, a civil ability to engage in dialogue with his colleagues and peers in his own fields of specialization. He stands for the reduction of scholarship to nothing more than mouth-frothing polemic.

We cannot hold ourselves up as places which have thoroughly and systematically created institutional structures that differentiate careful or or thoughtful scholarship from polemical hackery and then at the same time, have those same structures turn around and continually confirm the legitimacy of someone like Churchill. We can’t deploy entirely fair and accurate arguments about the thoughtless cruelty and stupidity of a polemicist like Ann Coulter only to fill our bibliographies with citations to Ward Churchill, not to mention filling our journals with highly appreciative reviews.

Conquest's point seems to be that the anti-Western mind-set shrilly voiced by some and accepted by many so pervades academia that it is no surprise that vulnerable students are affected. With the energy and lack of wisdom natural to youth, and with the rage of feeling like a second class human due to heritage and nationality while at the same time being elite due to intelligence and education, a plausible causal connection can be made with subsequent terrorist acts.

It's a difficult subject to discuss due in large part to denial by academia. As Joe Katzamn puts it:

"If you claimed they murdered 3 men and a dog,... they'd try to defeat your argument by proving that the dog was still healthy."
Accusing academics of being pedantic is redundant. It's their profession, their weapon of choice, and it is rare indeed when an honest discussion can take place. It won't happen until they finally grasp that they have harmed themselves and it is in their interests to deal with the problem. A few like Timothy make a good faith effort but he has limits too. Like Frenchmen, they don't apologize for being who they are but consider it a virtue and try to preserve their culture no matter how many blunders they make or defeats they suffer.

But we care, which brings us full circle to Robert Conquest. His work has been and will continue to be nibbled by "healthy dog" arguments no matter how many bodies wash up on the beach. His past work has proved to be durable and though perhaps not brilliant by some standards had the virtue of being correct about a subject that was hotly denied at the time. Is it so this time too? It seems an important subject and I don't think it's going away this time.


Posner makes a related point.

... no one who has spent much time around universities thinks they've ever "encourage[d] uncircumscribed intellectual explorations." The degree of self-censorship in universities, as in all institutions, is considerable. Today in the United States, most of the leading research universities are dominated by persons well to the left of Larry Summers, and they don't take kindly to having their ideology challenged, as Summers has now learned to his grief. There is nothing to be done about this, and thoughtful conservatives should actually be pleased. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty, when one's ideas are not challenged, one's ability to defend them weakens. Not being pressed to come up with arguments or evidence to support them, one forgets the arguments and fails to obtain the evidence. One's position becomes increasingly flaccid, producing the paradox of thought that is at once rigid and flabby. And thus the academic left today.
This is an argument I've been making for some time, though with considerably less skill and no authority. It's important since the rise of the right isn't solely due to their skill and enterprise, and their policies would be better if tempered by useful argument from an intellectually engaged and capable opposition. All sides would be improved, education would be improved and governance would be improved.
Posted by back40 at 11:45 PM | culture

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Curious. I've found a few places in my life where I've found a sliding scale of "uncircumscribed intellectual explorations." 1. Around the dinner table with good friends and flowing wine. 2. Around the seminar table in graduate school. 3. In the blogosphere. 4. And in journalism. The sliding scales I'm thinking of are civility and circumscription and freedom to explore new ideas and be wrong. Generally, the best of friends provide the best of all, along with forgiveness for transgressions. The folks around the table are usually engaged and more or less capable. The graduate seminar is more rigorous and unforgiving, more circumscribed and tough, usually civil, but sometimes not, but often more challenging. I have found it a realm of "intellectually engaged and capable opposition." It is not rare indeed for an honest discussion to take place. Perhaps I have been lucky. A little more time, and a little wine, might make most of the conversations a little looser and better. In the blogosphere, freedom reigns, circumscription is nonexistence, civility is rare, and I've come to appreciate places were there is a balance, somewhere in between the dinner table and the graduate seminar. The chaos can be invigorating. The invective can be bracing. And one can always click away. A little more circumscription might be a good thing, present company excepted, of course. But not at the expense of freedom. The blogosphere has opened wide the windows of intellectual discourse. They won't be closed. Journalism is the most circumscribed form, but still a source of inspiration for new intellectual explorations. It could bear to loosen up and will, I think, be loosened up by the influence of the blogosphere. I don't think any one of these spheres has all of the elements of "an intellectually engaged and capable opposition." But I'm pretty happy with the mix.

Posted by: Jon Christensen at February 6, 2005 09:29 AM

Hi Jon,

I'm glad that your dog is doing OK. I'm still concerned about all those bodies in the bushes and that funny smell.

Posted by: back40 at February 6, 2005 10:26 AM

Yeah, I just noticed the "broken leashes all over the floor." Must have happened last night while I was deep into the wine and conversation.

Posted by: Jon Christensen at February 6, 2005 10:48 AM